Dir. Lee Kang-Sheng. Taiwan. 2003. 84 min.
Sharing the top award in Pusan's New Currents competition, the debut of actor Lee Kang-Sheng as writer and director indicates beyond doubt that he shares the visual and spiritual world of his mentor and friend, Tsai Ming-Liang, in whose films he has regularly appeared for the last 12 years. A slow, moody, intimate, highly stylised picture about a woman looking for her grandson and an adolescent searching for his grandfather, this is probably a less ambitious but no less poignant replica of a Tsai Ming-Liang picture in every detail. As such, it will be eagerly embraced by festivals and art circuits for its minimalist, demanding kind of cinema and his introverted, pessimistic portrait of the world around him.
An old woman takes her three-year-old old grandson to play in the park and leaves him for a minute in the care of a small girl to rush to the toilet - but when she comes back he has vanished, probably in the company of an old man who was sitting nearby. For the rest of the film, she despondently searches first the park, then the entire city, trying to find him.
At the same time, a teenager who spends most of his time in a video arcade, comes home to find the staircase leading to the flat he shares with his grandfather covered with shreds of newspapers announcing new plagues, while the TV set blares out instructions on how to deal with the SARS epidemic. However the old man himself is missing.
Most of the first part of the film is taken up by the search for the lost grandson, with a few inter-cuts showing the young man absorbed by the vile-looking video games he plays. The last third mainly follows the adolescent looking for his grandfather, inter-cut once in a while with the terrified old woman who refuses to lose hope. Though there is no evident relation between the two stories, they converge at the end in an affecting finale.
Dedicated to the memory of Lee's father who recently passed away, the film is first and foremost an expression of the profound sense of loss experienced by the old woman and the young man, as different as they are from each other. Together they share a pain, longing and fear of loneliness, which those around them who are not touched by events can at best politely sympathise with - but never truly participate in. There is also the portrait, very closely related to Tsai Ming-Liang's intimate universe, of the world as a vale of tears, ravaged by catastrophe and devastated by personal tragedies.
Tsai aficionados will recognise here not only the actors featured in most of his films and the names of his regular technical crew, but also some of his works' emotions: the solitude of the characters coming to the forefront in public places like parks (which are supposed to bring people together but don't); or the cold, desolate feeling of living in an indifferent world. The latter is manifested via several methods, whether directly to the film's protagonists or in accidental encounters they have on the way, like the video arcade manager ignored by passers-by when he collapses in the street.
Other elements also point at all these clearly point at Tsai's kind of cinema, including the almost complete lack of dialogues, shots that go on forever, the absence of background music before the final song (the melancholy Little Clay Doll) and the sound effects that help tell the story. Then there is the cold artificial light of neon and VDUs and characters' personal obsessions with water, goldfish and public lavatories.
Several of the scenes that are framed like still life paintings, but this is to denigrate on Lee's aptitudes, for his camera moves with confidence. One very long take of the grandmother, amazingly portrayed by Lu Yi-Ching, conveys a particular intensity. The old woman, who has despair etched in every pore, dashes through the park, despondently runs from one corner of the playground to another, sometimes disappearing behind trees, objects and crowds of people but is unerringly picked up by the camera every time she comes back into sight again. Over the scene, which comes half an hour into the film, play the sound of the park and the bewildered woman's moaning. There is nothing to match it for the next hour, but luckily, the final sequence, equally remarkable, carries a similar kind of wallop.
Prod co/int'l sales: Homegreen Films
Prod: Liang Hung-Chih
Exec prod: Tsai Ming-Liang
Scr: Lee Kang-Sheng
Cinematography: Liao Pen-Jung
Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang
Prod des: Lue Li-Chin
Costumes: Sun Huei-Mei
Sound des: Du Tuu-Chih
Sound: Tang Hsiang-Chu
Main cast: Lu Yi-Ching, Miao Tien, Chang Chea